While I don’t usually read espionage tales set in World War II, Tolkien so cleverly balances good with evil and recreates real-life characters that his novel becomes a deftly shaded expose of flawed humanity and of those who seek to impose their traitorous instincts
upon the rest of us. Dressed up as an archetypal thriller, Orders from Berlin is chiefly about ordinary people, through heroism and sacrifice, reshaping the direction of the
Allied war effort.
Centering on the machinations of Reinhard Heydrich,
who was a key player in the rise of Hitler, the novel traces Heydrich’s plan to execute a deadly assault on Winston Churchill. He planned to use a secret mole working in Britain to assassinate the Prime Minister and thus change the course of the war. If successful, the operation would mean a sweet victory for both Heydric and Hitler as they begin to accelerate their plan to invade England.
Filling his story with meticulously laid-out twists designed to shock the reader, Tolkien introduces us to Heydrich as he lays out his plan in front of Hitler, and to Winston Churchill, who is stalwart in his view that Germany is an “evil empire.” Meanwhile, Churchill’s agents Charles Seaforth and Alec Thorn
are caught up in the drama when they receive an unexpected summons to sort through "the nuts and bolts" of information coming out of the war zone.
The animosity between Seaforth and Thorn sets the tone for the novel’s conflicts. Seaforth objects to Thorn’s upper-class sensibilities and holds the view that the last Great War
was all about “sweeping away men like Thorn.” Alec’s heroism and the sudden death of the ex-chief of MI6, Albert Morrison,
complicate the situation. Thrown from the balustrade of his Gloucester Mansions flat, Morrison's body is found with a strange handwritten note that records a mysterious name and the letter "C."
Readers will be able to puzzle out exactly what Tolkien has in store. Guessing the actual murderer (and the mole) is easy, mainly because Tolkien reveals him about halfway through. Discovering the
"whys" are less simple because Tolkien introduces other key players: Albert’s daughter, Ava, whose crumbling marriage has made her more beholden to her father; and William Trave, a handsome junior police constable who promises Ava that he will find Albert’s killer.
Sensitive Trave is the story’s moral center as Tolkien shows us how women like Ava can inadvertently become victims to men such as Bertram, her selfish, cruel husband.
The whistling of exploding bombs and the booming anti-aircraft guns sing in a chorus of lamentation, the silver barrage balloons above Battersea Park “like gigantic headless creatures.”
The landscape gives the novel its historical depth and conveys not only a sense of immediacy but also shows a world in crisis. While on the hunt for Albert’s killer, Trave is just one more defenseless person in danger of being bombed. Amid the endless, unheeded warnings about Nazis and traitors, the whole country is jittery over the threat of invasion.
Here destruction is as indiscriminate as it is unpredictable.
Although the novel is anchored by the espionage elements and the fate of a
country that hangs on “a green, detective constable and a housewife from
Battersea,” the tale actually turns on the private animosities of an individual
immersing himself in an isolated prison of rage and hatred. Trave, like a rolling snowball, finally gathers up the vital facts, unfurling a man’s connection to his brother while Tolkien reminds us of the necessity of absolution in a terrible, deadly time of war.